Home / Chroniques / Limiting freight flows, still a taboo idea for the transition?
π Industry π Planet

Limiting freight flows, still a taboo idea for the transition?

Aurélien Bigo
Aurélien Bigo
Research Associate of the Energy and Prosperity Chair at Institut Louis Bachelier
Key takeaways
  • The vision of the energy transition of freight transport is very often focused on technology, which is an indispensable but also insufficient lever.
  • Moderation of freight transport demand is another lever of the energy transition to be taken into account, allowing the reduction of emissions, costs and negative externalities of transport.
  • Ways of moderating transport demand include reducing the number of tonnes to be transported, reducing the number of kilometres travelled and reducing the number of logistics chains.
  • In contrast to the technological and modal shift levers, which largely question internal developments in the logistics sector, moderation of transport demand depends essentially on developments in other sectors of the economy.
  • Moderation of transport demand is crucial for achieving decarbonisation objectives, and there is a need to look further into this lever, to understand its potential and to put in place appropriate policies.

The vision of the ener­gy tran­si­tion of freight trans­port is very often strong­ly focused on tech­nol­o­gy, which is indis­pens­able but also insuf­fi­cient and faces many obsta­cles. The answer to this is often to evoke the modal shift as the main alter­na­tive to lim­it the trans­port by heavy goods vehi­cles (see the pre­vi­ous arti­cles in link). But the sce­nar­ios also show a major poten­tial for mod­er­at­ing trans­port demand, i.e. lim­it­ing the flow of goods.

Why moderate transport demand?

Prospec­tive sce­nar­ios in France show very dif­fer­ent trends in trans­port demand by 2050, from about +80% to almost ‑50% depend­ing on the sce­nario (see first arti­cle). Depend­ing on the path tak­en, the chal­lenges in terms of logis­tics or resource and ener­gy con­sump­tion will vary great­ly. The same is true in terms of the effect of this fac­tor on the evo­lu­tion of emissions.

Thus, the poten­tial of modal shift will be lim­it­ed with­out a more glob­al recon­sid­er­a­tion of the vol­umes and organ­i­sa­tion of logis­tics flows. On the con­trary, its modal share will be able to increase all the more if total demand is not grow­ing strong­ly, if road trans­port is dis­ad­van­taged, and if the modal shift pol­i­cy is part of a glob­al evo­lu­tion con­sis­tent with region­al plan­ning, indus­tri­al pol­i­cy and the evo­lu­tion of logis­tics chains (see 3rd arti­cle).

The tech­no­log­i­cal options for decar­bon­i­sa­tion are also con­front­ed with con­straints on avail­able resources, whether bio­mass (bio­gas, agro­fu­els), elec­tric­i­ty and/or met­als (elec­tric­i­ty, hydro­gen). Reduc­ing traf­fic will lim­it these con­straints and facil­i­tate the exit from fos­sil fuels, which dom­i­nate today for liq­uid and gaseous fuels (methane) and for the pro­duc­tion of hydro­gen (see 2nd arti­cle).

The finan­cial cost of the tran­si­tion will also be reduced, both in terms of invest­ment costs in infra­struc­ture (logis­tics, trans­port, ener­gy, etc.), the cost of renew­ing vehi­cle fleets and the cost of pro­duc­ing energy.

Final­ly, lim­it­ing freight traf­fic will simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reduce many of the exter­nal­i­ties of trans­port: con­ges­tion, wear and tear on infra­struc­ture, air and noise pol­lu­tion, acci­dents, the need for logis­tics space, and pol­lu­tion linked to the extrac­tion of resources.

How can transport demand be moderated?

The way to count the trans­port demand fac­tor is the tonne​.km (which cor­re­sponds to 1 tonne moved over 1 km). Domes­tic freight trans­port in France cor­re­sponds to about 330 bil­lion t.km, or about 14 t.km per day and per per­son (or 100 kg over 140 km, for exam­ple)1.

We can men­tion 3 ways to mod­er­ate this demand for freight:

  • Reduce the tons to be trans­port­ed, by sobri­ety in the mate­r­i­al con­sump­tion of the economy;
  • Reduc­ing the num­ber of kilo­me­tres trav­elled, by relo­cat­ing the econ­o­my in order to reduce trans­port distances;
  • Reduce the num­ber of inter­me­di­aries between extrac­tion and ini­tial pro­duc­tion, then the final con­sumer or delivery.

To take some exam­ples accord­ing to the type of goods:

  • In agri­cul­ture and food, these three levers can be used in the tran­si­tion, by lim­it­ing food waste (low­er tons), more local food (low­er dis­tances), and the devel­op­ment of short cir­cuits (reduc­tion of intermediaries);
  • For con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, which rep­re­sent large vol­umes but over fair­ly lim­it­ed dis­tances, the vol­ume reduc­tions could be sig­nif­i­cant through the reduc­tion of new con­struc­tion due to demo­graph­ic changes, through reha­bil­i­ta­tion and ren­o­va­tion rather than new con­struc­tion, or through the con­struc­tion of col­lec­tive rather than indi­vid­ual housing;
  • In indus­try or for man­u­fac­tured goods, this depends more glob­al­ly on the evo­lu­tion of indus­tri­al pol­i­cy, as well as on the sobri­ety and struc­ture of con­sump­tion. This will have an impact on domes­tic flows but also on inter­na­tion­al flows, giv­en the impor­tance of imports of con­sumer goods;
  • Final­ly, in the ener­gy sec­tor, about one third of the ton­nages han­dled in French ports are hydro­car­bons (oil and gas)2. These flows are expect­ed to decrease sig­nif­i­cant­ly if the ener­gy tran­si­tion is suc­cess­ful, with­out being com­pen­sat­ed in com­pa­ra­ble pro­por­tions by replace­ment means (ener­gy, met­als, renew­able ener­gy pro­duc­tion means, bat­ter­ies, etc.).

Risks or broader developments to be taken into account

Unlike the tech­no­log­i­cal and modal shift levers, which are large­ly based on changes with­in the logis­tics sec­tor, mod­er­at­ing trans­port demand depends large­ly and even essen­tial­ly on changes in oth­er sec­tors of the econ­o­my. As always, and even more so in this case, the tran­si­tion must there­fore be looked at in a suf­fi­cient­ly broad man­ner to ensure that rel­e­vant devel­op­ments are sought. Many of the devel­op­ments linked to the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion are in line with the mod­er­a­tion of demand (as men­tioned above). 

How­ev­er, there are three poten­tial risks to be con­sid­ered to ensure that the objec­tive of demand mod­er­a­tion is not achieved at the expense of oth­er vir­tu­ous developments:

  • As freight trans­port flows are by nature inter­act­ing with the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the econ­o­my, there may be an increase in flows for cer­tain types of mate­ri­als or sec­tors in the tran­si­tion, for exam­ple for met­als, bio­mass, or the flows need­ed to imple­ment a more cir­cu­lar econ­o­my. These flows will often be low­er than with the cur­rent fos­sil econ­o­my and will have to be ratio­nalised but should not be neglect­ed in the transition.
  • Also, rein­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion in France will have the effect of lim­it­ing cer­tain inter­na­tion­al flows (mar­itime in par­tic­u­lar) but may on the con­trary increase cer­tain flows with­in France. Thus, relo­cat­ing cer­tain stages of pro­duc­tion of indus­tri­al prod­ucts and con­sumer goods will bring more tons​.km than just ensur­ing the final deliv­ery to con­sumers from ports or borders.
  • Final­ly, we must be care­ful not to demas­si­fy logis­tics with the reduc­tion of dis­tances and vol­umes. In fact, high vol­umes over long dis­tances favor high­er-capac­i­ty trucks and/or modal shift to riv­er or rail. With­out this pre­cau­tion, the slight­est opti­miza­tion of flows may in some cas­es more than off­set the ben­e­fits of demand moderation.

In conclusion

The evo­lu­tion of freight trans­port demand will be a deter­min­ing fac­tor in achiev­ing the decar­bon­i­sa­tion objec­tives, in a con­text of dif­fi­cul­ties and strong iner­tia in the oth­er levers. It is all the more nec­es­sary to move towards the sce­nar­ios with the low­est freight flows, since the changes envis­aged in the future are very dif­fer­ent: a fac­tor of 3.5 between an almost twofold reduc­tion and an increase of up to 80%, depend­ing on the scenario.

Although cer­tain risks are to be antic­i­pat­ed, this evo­lu­tion is glob­al­ly con­sis­tent with an econ­o­my that seeks greater sobri­ety and a cer­tain relo­ca­tion of pro­duc­tive activ­i­ties. In view of the lit­tle inter­est so far in these devel­op­ments, but also of the com­plex­i­ty of the sub­ject, it is nec­es­sary to focus more on this major lever.

1CGDD-SDES, 2022. Bilan annuel des trans­ports en 2021.
2Graphique à retrou­ver dans ADEME, 2021. Transition(s) 2050, p218.Voir aus­si les travaux de l’IDDRI en 2019, ou encore le scé­nario du PTEF du Shift Project qui pro­jette ‑35 % de demande d’ici à 2050.

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter